Sensory Flooding and the Roundabout Hypothesis

“New research finds that #autism isn’t just about the brain. If you dampen the overexcitement of tactile sensors outside the brain, suddenly the brain doesn’t have to deal with that flood of incoming signals. It helps anxiety & social too.

Source: AspergersAutismNews on Twitter

What’s even more interesting is that once this over-ramping of incoming signals happened, it directly led to an increase in anxiety. That makes sense. If your brain is dealing with lots of additional input, it’s being stressed. Second, that over-ramping of incoming signals also lead to social issues. Again, it makes sense if the brain is already swamped with sensory signals that it doesn’t have extra time to deal with facial expressions and relationships. So everything here is related.

Source: Tactile Sensitivity Autism and Neurons – Aspergers Autism News

But, what about if your brain takes in too much information at once?  The second photo shows a roundabout where there’s too much traffic happening from all directions.  Gridlock.  Now, nothing can get through.  (Well, maybe cyclists.  They can always get through somehow.)  But the rest of us, stuck, overheating, beeping horns or collapsed in a heap of despair, going nowhere.  Some autistic brains take in so much information that they can’t get any of it processed and sent on its way.

When it happens, our brains simply have to wait for the ‘traffic’ to clear.  Just adding more traffic to it won’t work.  More ‘traffic’ might be chatting with us, or trying to put a hand on a shoulder without our consent.  Or shouting at us.  Or making us stay in a busy, noisy place where the queue of ‘traffic’ waiting for our brains to process it just gets longer, and longer.  It might be more ‘traffic’ from our brain trying to work out how to speak, or how to understand non-literal language.

We need the traffic to stop arriving. Noise cancelling headphones help me. Sunglasses help, too. A quiet room without bright artificial lighting also helps. Wearing comfortable clothes so that there’s isn’t a constant traffic jam from the, for example, ‘Your socks are hurting you’ lane.

Find out what helps us reduce the ‘traffic’.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Roundabout Hypothesis – a Guest Blog by Chris Memmott

People with ASD commonly experience aberrant tactile sensitivity: a seemingly innocuous touch, such as a gentle breeze or a hug, can be unpleasant or even painful (1, 2). In fact, sensory overreactivity is so common that it is now a diagnostic factor for ASD (2).

We therefore sought to determine whether somatosensory circuits were affected in ASD, and whether altered tactile sensitivity might contribute to other ASD traits. Our goal was to focus on tractable symptoms-somatosensory abnormalities-as an entry into these complex, heterogeneous disorders.

Together with a growing body of other research (_3_, _4_, _16_-_18_), our work highlights that peripheral sensory neurons have a major role in ASD and that selective treatment of these neurons has the potential to improve some developmental and behavioral abnormalities associated with ASD. We are moving toward measuring touch overreactivity in humans with ASD and pursuing modulation of peripheral neuron excitability as a potential clinical therapy.

Via:

Some people with autism do not realise that they have chronic anxiety as they have either not noticed or recognised the symptoms as anxiety. This seems to be because the anxiety and accompanying symptoms have existed as long as the person can remember, so it feels as if it this is just their ‘normal state of being’.

Source: Purkis, Yenn. The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum (p. 41). Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Raises hand. It me.

Exposure anxiety (EA) is a condition identified by Donna Williams in which the child or adult feels acutely self-conscious; it leads to a persistent and overwhelming fear of interaction.

Source: Exposure anxiety in autism | Network Autism

EA can be quite crippling as it it causes the person to feel acutely self-conscious and leads to a persistent and overwhelming fear of interaction. And that makes any attention from other people feel potentially threatening so that the child feels ‘exposed’ each time someone looks at him, talks to him or even compliments him.

Source: Autism and Exposure Anxiety. Don’t look at me! – Autism Daily Newscast

Exposure Anxiety: a definition

Exposure Anxiety is the internal parent watching its vulnerable and exposed baby being stolen by the world outside or given away by ‘the self’; being robbed of control by what are felt as ‘outside forces’. Exposure Anxiety is a self-parenting survival mechanism, an intense often tic-like involuntary self-protection mechanism that jumps in to defend against sensed ‘invasion’. When it becomes chronic, it is self-perpetuating – like a boulder hurtling down a hill, gaining momentum. Chronic, uncontrolled, acute Exposure Anxiety is about addiction to your own adrenaline. We all experience stress and some of us are more driven, more passionate, more fixated and intense, more independent, more controlling, more dominant or passive, more jumpy or aloof, naturally. In most cases where Exposure Anxiety goes hand in hand with the metabolic, digestive and immune system disorders that co-occur in the largest percentage of people on the autistic spectrum. The chronic stress of Exposure Anxiety exacerbates physiological problems which then affect information processing as well as throw neurotransmitter balance into a state of chaos, forming a self-perpetuating loop. The person with Exposure Anxiety who lives and works with those who do not understand the condition are bound to find the self-in-relation-to-other, directly-confrontational approach of the environment seems to make Exposure Anxiety worse.

Exposure Anxiety has two faces and is the heaven and the hell, the lure of sanctuary and the suffocation of the prison.

Exposure Anxiety is a mechanism that craves the extreme and retaliates against any sense of impending invasion. It is like taking a feeling of severe shyness and multiplying it by fifty, yet its presentation is extremely confusing to onlookers. People with severe Exposure Anxiety can be frozen, or they can be manic and high. They can be prone to despair and depression, driven and creative, or unable to connect. They can be obsessive or fiercely indifferent, compulsively helpful or aloof. They can be passive or controlling; bombastic or phobic; deeply empathic or compulsively violent; open and honest or secretive and intensely private. Exposure Anxiety is likely one of a range of conditions relating to what has been coined ‘Reward Deficiency Syndrome’, essentially relating to reward feedback and impulse control mechanisms in the brain.

Exposure Anxiety makes it difficult to dare ‘expressive volume’ in a directly-confrontational (self-in-relation-to-other) world

Exposure Anxiety is about feeling your own existence too close up, too in your own face.

If I could draw you a picture of acute chronic Exposure Anxiety, I’d draw you a rainbow unseen within heavy stone walls. There’d be places in the stone where the cement had crumbled, been chipped away and some of the colour had come streaming out like a ray of light into the world. I’d draw you a picture of someone inside a prison, an invisible prison with replica selves on the outside, each a contortion, a distortion of the one you can’t see who can’t get out. I’d draw you a picture of someone avoidant with a social person waiting inside for the keys and a way out. I’d show you the compulsive, with a face manic in the midst of a diversion to distract you, to control you, from getting in. I’d draw you a face with a plastic smile, perfect movements, a learned handshake and a gut full of despair and loneliness in a world that applauds the ‘appear’ at the expense of ‘self’; suicide without a corpse.

Source: Williams, Donna (2002-09-14T23:58:59). Exposure Anxiety – The Invisible Cage . Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

…when the autistic children were able to access their strongly held interests, the school staff didn’t need to prompt them anywhere near as much(or even at all), and the children were more motivated, independent and relaxed. Not only did this enable the supporting adult to take on a more constructive role, but the lighter-touch support meant that it was easier for peers to engage with the autistic children too.

…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.

In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.

Source: Autistic children and intense interests: the key to their educational inclusion? – woodbugblog

As his mom, I know there would have been telltale signs throughout the day. But they’re small clues that can be easily missed, as he would have been largely compliant, so therefore no one would have realized there was any problem. But I know as the day progressed, his complexion would have become paler as the energy sapped out of him with each passing hour.

He may have struggled to eat his lunch due to high anxiety. A nervous giggle would have squeaked out when his teachers tried to speak to him. He would have put his head down on the table during lessons or possibly rocked back and forward on his chair to calm himself down. And as the pressure mounted and the clock ticked toward home time, there may have even been some finger picking and sleeve chewing.

My son shows these signs of stress through his body language and gestures. He can’t always communicate his needs verbally, so they can get missed.

The can be a common challenge facing many children on the autism spectrum. Some children are able to contain their feelings all day at school, with the teacher blissfully unaware there’s a problem. However, the stress hormones are slowly building and building inside. This creates a situation that can put incredible pressure on families— especially if teachers don’t understand or believe what the parents are telling them. So let’s think about it this way for a minute…

Source: ‘Delayed Effect’: Child With Autism Melts Down at Home, Not at School | The Mighty

I updated “Interaction Badges: Opportunity but Not Pressure” with a selection from “History of ANI” as featured in “Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking”.

“Opportunity but not pressure” is a core principle for all Autreat activities: attendance at presentations, informal discussions that are held in the evenings, swimming and other recreational activities, socializing, meals (people who prefer to make their own meal arrangements are able to register for Autreat without paying for Autreat meals), on-site lodging (people who prefer to stay at an off-site hotel can register for Autreat at a commuter rate)—all participation is purely voluntary.

Freedom from pressures and expectations 

For some autistic people attending Autreat, the sudden absence of pressures and expectations to behave in certain ways can be quite disorienting at first. NT people are often disoriented as well, and may experience culture shock. One NT attendee described feeling unsure of how to behave and how to relate to people, confused about how to interpret other people’s behavior, and anxious that he might offend people without realizing it (personal communication). In other words, he was able to experience at Autreat some of the same social confusion and discomfort that autistic people frequently experience in NT society. While this can be somewhat disturbing, a number of NT people have reported that it was a valuable experience that helped them to better understand what autistic people go through on a daily basis.

The absence of any expectation or pressure to socialize, and the knowledge that they’re free to withdraw at any time, seem to free many autistic people to want to socialize.”

Source: History of ANI

Featured in: Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

Respect for each person’s solitude and personal space was essential, and the interaction badges allowed everyone to know at a glance who was open to talking. All of the conference events were optional, including the orientation itself; the overriding principle was “opportunity but not pressure.”

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (p. 448, 449). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Via: Interaction Badges: Opportunity but Not Pressure